4.9 The Problem of Evil

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

The Book of Isaiah

4.9.1 An Ancient Dilemma

Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, evil?

—Epicurus [c. 300 B.C.]

The problem of evil has troubled believers in an omnipotent God since antiquity. It has been discussed extensively enough to acquire its own name, theodicy. The epigraph above states the dilemma: An omnipotent God could prevent all evil, and an omnibenevolent (all-loving) God would prevent it. So it is a logical impossibility for God to have both properties in the world full of evil that undeniably surrounds us. It won’t do to offer up the old platitude, “nothing is impossible with God,” because the issue is our conception of God’s nature. That result of human thinking is far from divine, and the combination of omnipotence and omnibenevolence is just one of its several impossibilities.

As I mention in 4.4.1 regarding God’s nature, no entity can possess these conflicting properties, any more than a circle can have corners. If an object has corners, its shape is not a circle no matter how hard you squint at it. It may be a wonderful, precious, fine object. Perhaps it’s made of gold, or extremely rare. But it still is not a circle, no matter what, because of the corners it possesses.

So, like it or not, we are left grappling with the problem of suffering, for which there is no easy answer. “It is an open sore that theology can never pretend to heal” (Haught 2000, 55). Ingersoll noted that “many eminent men” had endeavored to harmonize the existence of evil with the “infinite power and goodness of God,” but concluded that they had “succeeded only in producing learned and ingenious failures” (Lecture on Gods). I think the discussion below will make it clear that no progress has been made in the hundred years since he said that.

4.9.2 Soteriology

If salvation is available only to Christians, then the gospel isn’t good news at all. For most of the human race, it is terrible news.

—Rachel Held Evans, Evolving in Monkey Town

“Soteriology” is a fancy word referring to the study of religious doctrines of salvation. David Myers describes the “soteriological problem of evil” as a “special instance of the problem of evil”:

According to orthodox Christianity, there is no salvation apart from Christ. To put it more explicitly, apart from faith in Christ Jesus as saviour . . . , one is condemned to hell. Orthodox Christianity is thus a form of exclusivism. From this perspective, it appears that all non-Christians are damned. [2003, 407]

Myers discusses three categories of non-Christians. First, there are those non-Christians who are simply “ignorant of Christ and never have an opportunity to accept or reject him.” Second, some are “aware of the salvific role attributed to Jesus” but “reject Christ because they grow up in and uncritically accept another religious tradition.” And, finally, there are “those who, after critical reflection, deliberately reject Christ” (p. 407). Myers asks why “members of any of these categories of non-believers deserve to be eternally punished”:

The eternal punishment of all non-Christians simply because they are non-believers, regardless of the reasons for their non-belief, seems arbitrary and ultimately unjust. This is called the soteriological problem of evil because it calls into question the justice of a doctrine of salvation. While the traditional problem of evil focuses on the suffering of the innocent in this world, the soteriological problem of evil focuses on the suffering of the innocent in the next world. If there are any inculpable non-believers in hell, there is eternal innocent suffering. [pp. 407-408]

The first category seems particularly troubling: “How can those who never have an opportunity to hear the Gospel message be justly condemned for not accepting Christ? In what sense can they be said to be guilty of disbelief if they never make a free decision to shut out God's mercy?” (p. 409). But the second category has problems, too:

The power of early religious education seems undeniable. Schopenhauer points out that if religious education begins early enough, by adulthood a person will be, in effect, inoculated against other religions: she will tend to judge other religions against the standard of the home religion and find them wanting. [pp. 411-12]

Myers points to the example of how conventional Muslims (over a fifth of the world’s population) reject the claim “that Jesus is the divine saviour.” They may be aware of the claim, but “they have also been effectively conditioned to believe that the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus is blasphemous. Isn’t it therefore unreasonable to hold that they can, in good conscience, freely choose Jesus as their saviour?” (p. 412).

Regarding the third category, seemingly the least troublesome, Myers says, “If someone really had convincing evidence that salvation comes through Christ alone and that failure to accept Christ’s offer of salvation will result in eternal punishment, would she really be free to decline to believe?” Yet most of the few people who truly have the opportunity for “critical reflection” do in fact decline. That is true not just in Myers’s framework of merely accepting Christ, but also in the far narrower one of accepting Conservative Laestadian Christianity. There are few conversions into the movement, and most of them seem to occur with little understanding of its doctrinal nuances. If the evidence were truly persuasive, that would not be the case: “Indeed, wouldn’t this offer be difficult, if not impossible, to refuse?” (p. 416).

Suffering “in the next world is said to be endless,” so the soteriological problem of evil is actually more serious “than the suffering of the innocent in this world” (p. 408), infinitely more serious, in fact. This quote from a 1974 issue of Päivämies touches ever so slightly on the issue, but quickly finds itself spinning into logical oblivion:

“Many have asked: ‘Since God knew the plans of the enemy of the soul and besides this knew what would befall man, then why did God undertake to create man at all.’ But if God would have canceled His plans, He would have confessed the enemy of the soul as Lord, but almighty God was not about to do this. . . . So God did not in the least permit the enemy of the soul to interfere with His plans or their fulfillment. On the other hand, God did not desire that man go to perdition through the deceit of the enemy of the soul. For that reason, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit held a consultation in heaven before creation began. Then the Lord Jesus promised the heavenly Father that He would redeem fallen mankind with His own blood and the work of the Holy Spirit was to sanctify corrupted man to be acceptable for heaven.”

God created uncounted billions of human beings with the full knowledge that he was going to damn almost all of them. It’s like breeding puppies for the sole purpose of slowly torturing them, and making yourself feel better about it by sparing the one or two that manage to find a well-hidden squeak toy. And why? To save face in a grudge match with the enemy of the soul, whom an omnipotent God (4.4.1) could just squash underfoot like any other opponent if he really wanted to. If the issue weren’t so serious, the Päivämies quote would be laughable. And it doesn’t mention anything about Conservative Laestadian exclusivity (4.2.1), a nasty bit of doctrine that makes the problem all the more awful. It’s not just most people who are damned for not “accepting Christ,” but almost all of them for not being part of a tiny, almost unknown sect.

Please stop and ponder this for a moment: What possible justification could there be for blaming those who are innocently ignorant–all but a tiny fraction of the billions of people who live to the age of accountability–for never even hearing about the only possible way to be saved? And the consequence to them is an eternity of unimaginably horrible torture? It’s not even punishment. There is no opportunity for rehabilitation, ever. It’s not about deterrence, either, because almost all of those being tortured had no idea that such a fate was in store for them, much less how to avoid it. No, it is just the most unimaginably cruel and pointless sadism, from a God we are told is loving and gracious:

“Throughout time God has shown His unfathomable love toward mankind, the crown of His creation” (VOZ, 12/2008).

God “loved us so much that by His grace, He gave His only Son Jesus to save us from our sins” (VOZ, 9/2009).

If you can simply accept that by faith, then nothing else I’ve pointed out in this book could possibly be of the slightest impact. Luther says that God “conceals His eternal mercy and loving-kindness behind His eternal wrath: His righteousness, behind apparent iniquity” (Bondage of the Will, §24), but I think what’s really happening is that unquestioning faith is being concealed behind meaningless platitudes about God’s nature. If it works for you, congratulations: You have a bulletproof faith that is impregnable to any argument, any problem, any inconsistency whatsoever. I’m surprised you’ve read this far, but please continue long enough to consider Robert M. Price’s impassioned wish

to make fundamentalists see that they are defaming and blaspheming God by crowning him the Lord of Damnation. I urge them to stop spreading the slander that God is planning to torment most of his hapless creatures in an eternal hell. Don’t get holier-than-thou with me, if this is what you are preaching. It is you who need to repent, Hellmonger, not me! It is you who are blaspheming the Spirit by calling all other religions false, not me, buster! Born-again Christians need to have the shoe placed on the other foot, where in fact it belongs. [2006b, 196]

4.9.3 Predestination

This is the highest degree of faith–to believe that He is merciful who saves so few and damns so many; to believe Him just, who according to His own will, makes us necessarily damnable . . .

—Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will

Predestination is the view advanced by Luther and taken up by John Calvin [1509-1564] that God “chooses some to be saved and rejects the others without an apparent reason for either choice” (Althaus 1963, 274). Luther’s hero Augustine had actually discussed and accepted the idea of “Divine foreknowledge” in both salvation and damnation a thousand years earlier (Kirk 1966, 340-41). But it was Calvin’s unabashed articulation of predestination in all its horror that resulted in the label of Calvinism.1

Luther spent an entire tedious book arguing that God “foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His immutable, eternal, and infallible will” (Bondage of the Will, §9). That includes what Luther acknowledges to seem “iniquitous, cruel, intolerable,” that God “should, of His mere will, leave men, harden them, and damn them, as though He delighted in the sins, and in the great and eternal torments of the miserable” (§94).

The whole repulsive idea “has given offence to so many and great men of so many ages,” Luther says. “And who would not be offended?”, he continues, “I myself have been offended more than once, even unto the deepest abyss of desperation; nay, so far, as even to wish that I had never been born a man.” But then the Stockholm Syndrome takes over, and he says he “was brought to know how healthful that desperation was, and how near it was unto grace” (§94). Terrified by the monstrosity he has made God out to be, Luther spends page after page bowing before his tormentor and trying to rationalize its cruelty:

[A] man cannot be thoroughly humbled, until he comes to know that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, counsel, endeavours, will, and works, and absolutely depending on the will, counsel, pleasure, and work of another, that is, of God only.

If . . . I could by any means comprehend how that same God can be merciful and just, who carries the appearance of so much wrath and iniquity, there would be no need of faith. But now, since that cannot be comprehended, there is room for exercising faith, while such things are preached and openly proclaimed: in the same manner as, while God kills, the faith of life is exercised in death. [§24]

What Luther fails to realize is that “unconditional, eternal predestination both to salvation and to damnation” (Althaus 1963, 275) makes it utterly pointless to “be humbled” and “have faith.” H.C. Lea noted the irony of predestination being taught “while men were earnestly urged to win God’s favor by good works and repentance and amendment and to earn salvation through the sacraments, as though the freedom of the will had never been questioned and predestination had never been heard of.” He considered the power to bind and loose from sins “a figment” if man “were predestined to bliss or to perdition” (Lea 1896, 98).

As Lea observes, the system relegates us to being mere predestinated puppets. Luther’s cherished humility and faith are not means to any end, but just futile motions we go through at the hands of the divine puppet master, who has long since decided which of the two boxes he will be tossing us into at the end of his scripted show.

Which is it?

The following two quotes from sermons given two years apart by the same preacher illustrate how the opposite viewpoints of God’s will about man’s salvation have been taught:

“Our heavenly Father, according to the Scriptures, wishes that none would perish, but all would come unto repentance and receive eternal life. So this will of the Father is made known yet today through His kingdom here on this earth, and through this kingdom is that voice of the Good Shepherd which is calling sinners unto repentance” (Dan Rintamaki, sermon given 1978).

“So, we might ask, how does one receive living faith? We must say that it is a grace gift of God, who, according to His own will and purpose, according to His Word, calls whom He will call and hardens whom He will harden. So we can see that it is only of the pure grace of God that one has been called” (Dan Rintamaki, sermon given 1980).

In one viewpoint, God “wishes that none would perish, but all would come unto repentance and receive eternal life.” In the other, just a few have “received living faith.” They are the lucky beneficiaries of a “grace gift” according to the “will and purpose” of God who “calls whom He will call and hardens whom He will harden.” There is an irreconcilable conflict here that is simply not acknowledged, perhaps because the conflict is also present in the Bible itself.

God’s desire that all would come to repentance is expressed in the following passages:

Ezekiel 18:23-32 and 33:11 (No pleasure in death of the wicked);

• Luke 15:1 (Joy in heaven over one sinner who repents);

• John 3:16-17 (“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved”);

• Acts 10:34-43 (“God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him”);

• 1 Timothy 2:1-6 (God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth”);

• 2 Peter 3:1 (The Lord is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”);

• 1 John 2:1 (Jesus is the propitiation “for the sins of the whole world”);

• Revelation 3:19 (Jesus knocks, “if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me”).

Contrast that with these passages:

• Isaiah 6:10-12 (Make people’s ears heavy and eyes shut “lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed”);

Mark 4:11-12 (Mystery of the kingdom given to the disciples, but things done in parables to outsiders, that “seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them”);

• Luke 10:21-24 (Jesus thanks God for hiding teachings from the wise and prudent, says “no man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him”);

• John 6:64-65 (Jesus “knew from the beginning who they were that believed not,” says “no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father”);

• Acts 13:48 (“[A]s many as were ordained to eternal life believed”);

• Romans 8:28-30 (“For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son . . . whom he did predestinate, them he also called”);

• Romans 9:15-18 (“For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy”);

• Ephesians 1:3-6 (God “predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will”);

• 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 (“God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness”)

• 1 Peter 1:1-2 (“Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”).

The Calvinist View

Predestination didn’t start with Calvin or even Luther, though those two men are responsible for much of its continued prominence. Besides Augustine with his “Divine foreknowledge” mentioned above, we can see an early example from Justin Martyr, who referred to God’s foreknowledge when attempting to explain Jesus’ failure to return as expected: “For the reason why God has delayed to do this, is His regard for the human race. For He foreknows that some are to be saved by repentance, some even that are perhaps not yet born” (First Apology, Ch. 28).

Conservative Laestadianism eventually attempts to soften the blow with some talk from the other perspective, about God’s desire for all to be saved. But for Laestadius, predestination of the “elect” was only one aspect of a harsh and unyielding theology:

“Our hope is that those few elect who remain in their most precious faith until the end, shall rejoice on Mt. Sion when the great Crossbearer holds the wedding with His bride. Then the bridesmaids leap as the hart and rejoice eternally. They sing a new hymn to God and the Lamb on Mt. Sion together with the hundred and forty-four thousand elect ones and eat fruit from the tree of life which refreshes their thirst now and eternally” (Laestadius, Mary’s Day sermon [1851]; Fourth Postilla, 195).

“The apostles preached repentance and forgiveness of sins, but God made the Christians. In this thought even yet, it is encouraging to do the work of God’s Kingdom. We weak travelers of the narrow way try to reveal to unbelievers their dangerous condition, but we cannot awaken one conscience. The Lord does it under the sermons of repentance. We proclaim the ministry of reconciliation, the full redemption work of Christ according to the authority which we have received, but at the same time we have knowledge of this, that we cannot give faith to any penitent heart. Only the Lord does that through the gospel we preach” (Havas [1935], 23).

O.H. Jussila [1888-1955], the son of Heikki Jussila [1863-1955], addresses the question of why Jesus praised God that the news of redemption is hidden from some (see the discussion of Mark 4:11 in 7.1):

“[W]hy did Doesn’t God want to expose it to all? Does He purposely condemn some to remain lost? God truly desires that everyone should come to the knowledge of truth and be saved. If salvation could be obtained through learning and knowledge, then the babes would have neither chance nor part. They would have to remain hopeless in their own helplessness. Where could he find help who cannot trust to his own ability? Where would he turn in his distress who is dejected by his own imperfection? What would happen to the laboring and heavy laden, who find no rest by reason of their own pilgrimage? They would have no helper, the wise and learned would not bother to help them, rather, they trample the weak under their feet. Jesus rejoices over the good portion of these poor ones. God is on their side” (O.H. Jussila, Greetings of Peace, 11/1943).

He asks an excellent question but his attempt to answer it rings hollow. Almighty God would like to extend salvation to everyone but, alas, he is unable to do so because the “wise and learned” would, if included, “trample the weak under their feet”? Such trampling might be feared by people who suspect they aren’t so wise or learned, but saying that God must condemn those who might do it because he lacks any better options is not only ridiculous, but insulting to the idea of God’s omnipotence.

“God in His all-knowing wisdom still has elect ones to whom He wants to open His arms of grace. Since He has so richly blessed the candlesticks and throng of callers during this time of doctrinal winds, it shows that the time of this visitation will continue in our land and that the elect are being gathered with haste and the grain fields ripen and whiten for the harvest” (Jussila 1948, 105).

In a sermon published in the August 1956 Greetings of Peace, Lauri Taskila referred to Romans 8:30:

“It says here, ‘Whom he did predestinate, them he called and whom he called, them he also justified.’ God has called. God has sounded this call, as Jesus has said, ‘many are called but few are chosen.’ Here it mentions concerning those who have been called and those who have been chosen. But why is it not the called ones have been chosen [sic.]? It certainly is not that God does not want to save all people. The will of God is that all would turn to repentance and that all would be saved. But the reason why all have not been chosen is this: People have been disobedient to heaven’s call.” After a discourse on Jesus’ parable of the wedding of the King’s son, in which people gave various excuses for why they couldn’t attend, Taskila asked, “What has been your excuse, you who still tonight listen to the Word of God with an unbelieving heart, you who have been called by God many times, but to this day you are not in the flock of the chosen ones? God has not been able to choose you through his gospel because you have not accepted the grace of election.”

According to that viewpoint, the puny mortal who rejects the “grace of election” is more powerful than God, who “has not been able to choose” that person, notwithstanding that “the will of God is that all would turn to repentance.”

Flirting with Free Will

Calvinism is sickening. The idea of God creating people with the intent to torture them forever violates the most basic of our own standards of decency, especially when you are forced to believe that he has created the vast majority of humankind with exactly that diabolical plan in mind. Ed Babinski said that he could not “conceive of any reasonably good person maintaining an eternal concentration camp, let alone God Himself” (2003, 214).

Neither could some of the biblical authors, nor some of the preachers who have expounded upon their writings. An early example is Ignatius, who wrote in his Epistle to the Philadelphians [c. 100 A.D.] that “our God is a lover of mankind, and ‘will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’” (Ch. 3). Despite its overt commitment to Luther’s teachings, including those about predestination, Conservative Laestadianism flirts with a version of “free will” that softens the rough edges of raw Calvinism:

“Paul said that God wants all men to be saved and that they would come to the knowledge of the truth. Therefore it is not the will of God that anyone be lost. He has not prepared hell for men, but for the devil and his angels. Of course, it is the will of many men to die blessed, but the world is dear and its vanishing course is pleasing where slavishness and scorn of men keep them from repentance” (Taskila 1961, 58-59).

God wants all men to be saved, and it’s not his will that anyone would be lost! It sounds a lot nicer, doesn’t it? So does this:

“It is grace of grace that yet in the kingdom of God flow living waters of life. To all who seek with sincere heart and truly desire to be obedient to the Will of the Father in Heaven, the doors of grace are still open day and night. Open your heart to ask: does grace still belong to me, and you will find that even the angels in Heaven are moved and will praise God that one more soul has received grace and peace through the forgiveness of sins in the name and blood of Christ” (VOZ, 1/1975).

The writer of the following quote doesn’t try to dismiss the idea of God’s elect, but says that God had not named his elect “by name,” a vacuous idea if I ever heard one. Is there some sort of take-a-number system in place like at the auto licensing office? And the disturbing question of predestination he deflects by simply designating those fortunate enough to be reading his words as God’s elect:

“What does God’s Word say about His chosen or elect people? First of all, there are no ‘ifs’ or guesswork, as to who are God’s elect according to the Word of God. Secondly, nowhere in the Bible can one find anyone’s name printed boldly that he or she is God’s elect. Had God named by name those who are His elect, then He would not have had to send His only begotten Son here to suffer and die on this Earth. . . . All we have to do is accept Him as our Savior; believe and be obedient to His will. In so doing, we will be found in the flock of God’s chosen; whom Jesus calls His own. It is you, my dear brother and sister in faith, who is God’s elect. Even though you may feel yourself unworthy to be called the elect of God. Be of good comfort for God looks at us through the redemption work of Christ and sees us as perfect in Him” (VOZ, 3/1975).

Again, we read that God’s will is for all to repent:

“The message of God’s kingdom is still heard in today’s world. It is God’s will that no man would perish, but all would repent. The Heavenly Father awakens a person to his condition. The awakened one can turn to God’s kingdom and confess his sins and ask that they be forgiven in the name of Christ” (VOZ, 12/1999).

The following writer goes all the way into “free will” territory, referencing Deuteronomy 30:19:

“Our destiny in eternity depends on our present choice. Whosoever will save his life, by denying Christ, shall lose it: and whosoever is content to lose his life, by owning Christ, shall find it. Here are life or death, good or evil, a blessing or a curse, set before us” (VOZ, 6/2001).

Man having a choice about his “destiny in eternity” is inconsistent with Luther’s teaching, repeated ad nauseum over hundreds of pages in The Bondage of the Will, that it is all up to God and man has no free will. But then one would think that God’s “will that no man would perish, but all would repent,” as quoted a few lines earlier (from VOZ, 12/1999), would wind up being fulfilled in more than 0.002% or so of the world’s present population.

Thus, in their efforts to play up omnibenevolence, the preachers often forget about that other critical property, omnipotence:

“The Heavenly Father prepares men’s hearts to receive the Word, and desires that all men would seek Him” (VOZ, 8/2003).

“Even now Jesus is calling sinners to repentance” (VOZ, 6/2006).

“God wishes that all people would seek and find the Kingdom of God while it is a time of grace” (VOZ, 4/2009).

If an omnipotent (i.e., all-powerful) God desires something to happen, then it will happen. But it clearly is not happening:

“[W]hen someone is truly seeking, when someone with a penitent heart is realizing their own sinfulness and seeking a gracious God, then God leads them to find the Kingdom, or He leads the kingdom to find them” (Jim Frantti, sermon given 2010).

I would guess that not much more than a thousand of all of the Conservative Laestadians now living are converts (most of them being in the mission fields outside Finland and North America). Out of seven billion people! Those who presume to tell us about God’s wishes and capabilities in the face of this have to decide that either God is not really omnipotent, or that he really doesn’t want everyone to seek him. Of course, neither is an attractive option for the believer to consider.

Frantti uses the excuse that none of the billions of people who have failed “to find the kingdom” have been “truly seeking.” It is an outrageous statement, but it is probably the only way he can reconcile a universal view of Jesus’ statement “Seek and ye shall find” (Mt 7:7) with the Conservative Laestadian exclusivity he must preach.

Ultimately, the Conservative version of “free will” is an effort to burnish the image of a loving God while allowing him to remain omnipotent (4.4.1). But with an exclusivity doctrine that has God ultimately condemning almost all of his created humanity to eternal torture, you just can’t have it both ways.

4.9.4 Human Suffering

During the time that it took for this Christmas Eve service to conclude, more than 700 children in the world would have died of hunger; 250 others from drinking unsafe water; and nearly 300 other people from malaria. Not to mention the ones who had been raped, mutilated, tortured, dismembered, and murdered. Nor the innocent victims caught up in the human trade industry, nor the suffering throughout the world from grinding poverty, the destitute migrant farm workers in our own country, those who are homeless and afflicted with mental disease . . . And where is God?

—Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem

The dilemma of God damning most of humanity is one created by theology. Regardless of how sincerely people might believe in the horror of eternal torment, it is not something that they have had reported to them as an actual occurrence. People enter into the silence of death providing us with no more indication that they are crying out in vain for the opportunity to warn us (“I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment,” Lk 16:28) than that their fate was to simply “go hence, and be no more” (Psa 39:13) and then “know not any thing” (Eccl 9:5). But the suffering we know about all too well, right here on this planet, cannot be denied.

Even though I’ve been sheltered from it in my comfortable, relatively trouble-free life, the misery experienced every day by much of humankind comes to mind for me during church services just as Ehrman describes in the epigraph above. The preachers begin their sermons by praising God for his goodness and thanking him for the many “temporal blessings” that they and their comparatively prosperous congregations have enjoyed. But they either do not think or do not dare to ask God why he hasn’t spread things around just a bit more evenly. As Ehrman asks poignantly in his book about theodicy, “By thanking God for your good fortune, aren’t you implicating him for the misfortunes of others?” (2008, 130).

The Old Testament God certainly wasn’t interested in equal-opportunity blessings. “This is the God of the patriarchs who answered prayer and worked miracles for his people; this is the God of the exodus who saved his suffering people from the misery of slavery in Egypt” (p. 5). In saving “his people,” God didn’t seem to care much about the Egyptians on whom he inflicted so much pain, terror, and death. In the New Testament, through Jesus, he “healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, and fed those who were hungry.” But where

is this God now? If he came into the darkness and made a difference, why is there still no difference? Why are the sick still wracked with unspeakable pain? Why are babies still born with birth defects? Why are young children kidnapped, raped, and murdered? Why are there droughts that leave millions of starving, suffering horrible and excruciating lives that lead to horrible and excruciating deaths? If God intervenes to deliver the armies of Israel from its enemies, why doesn’t he intervene now when the armies of sadistic tyrants savagely attack and destroy entire villages, towns, and even countries? If God is at work in the darkness, feeding the hungry with the miraculous multiplication of loaves, why is it that one child–a mere child!–dies every 5 seconds of hunger? [Ehrman 2008, 5-6]

A doubting Charles Templeton wondered the same thing while contemplating “a photo in Life magazine of an African woman with a dead baby in her arms.” “As he saw the desperation in her eyes, he asked himself, ‘Is it possible to believe that there is a loving or caring Creator when all this woman needed was rain?’” (Tucker 2002, 38).

One of the fascinating stories in Gina Welch’s book In the Land of Believers is of a homeless man lecturing evangelicals about this problem of theodicy. She had infiltrated herself (an atheist) into a group of evangelicals who were undertaking a “street evangelism” effort. “Down alleyways and behind dumpsters,” they sought out potential converts and delivered their pitch to one they encountered:

Bristling visibly, the man said, “Dude, don’t tell me about Jesus.” He scoffed, staggered back, and released a peaty belch of whiskey. “Man, I’m out here every day. I could be hit by a goddamn train. If God loves everybody so much, why don’t he stop people from getting kilt all the damn time? I could be run over by a goddamn car just minding my business, crossing this goddamn street.” [Welch 2009, 247]

One of the proselytizers replied,

“So could I. Anybody could. But when I die, I believe I’m going to be in heaven with Jesus.” No tenderness. No flicker of opportunity. The man roared with laughter. The collar of his shirt shifted and I saw a white chain around his neck. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, straps of bitterness suddenly cinching in his voice. “Anybody could die.” In the placket of his shirt I saw that a crucifix dangled below his throat: a rosary. “You tell me where God is when people are dyin’ in the streets. A dude got kilt the other day. How’m I supposed to believe in Him when He don’t care about me?” Alice began to explain her beliefs about free will, but it was like explaining the electoral college to a music video on TV. The conversation was over. [pp. 247-48]

But of course the conversation is not over, at least not for those who feel obliged to praise God as loving and merciful while also maintaining that he is the omnipotent and omniscient ruler “over everything in heaven and on earth”:

“Always when sin has received some special form, the patience of God has ended. God by His judgment has prevented the power of sin and evil. In this way, God shows Himself to be a righteous God who hates sin. At the same time He rules over everything in heaven and on earth, so that His godly power and love will become manifest. The Bible speaks to us of God’s works of deliverance and judgment. God is merciful even when He destroys nations. For if God in His righteous judgment did not destroy them and establish the limits of the power of evil, then everyone would have perished” (Saari 1968, 49).

Even Conservatives will now admit that Heikki Saari said some outrageous things. One of the worst I have encountered is that use of the word “merciful” to describe the destruction of nations. How many people have been saved (by conversion to Conservative Laestadianism, of course) due to God’s wreaking such destruction in the past century or so, via earthquakes, tsunamis, two world wars, famine, and disease?

After listing some of “the ills, and pains, and agonies of this world” in his Lecture on Gods, Ingersoll concludes that it is impossible to harmonize them “with the idea that we were created by, and are watched over and protected by an infinitely wise, powerful and beneficent God, who is superior to and independent of nature. The clergy, however, balance all the real ills of this life with the expected joys of the next.” And that is the focus of the next quote, from the July 1990 Voice of Zion:

“In due time God speaks unto man. Many times the speaking happens through trials. These trials could be experienced by whole nations through wars and disasters but also by an individual person through sickness, dying of a dear one or an accident. . . . Trials are God’s love towards man. Through them God draws a person unto Himself, undresses him of the self-righteous condition, and softens the soil of heart for the gospel seed to be sowed” (VOZ, 7/1990).

When God speaks to whole nations through wars and disasters, what does he say? For a critically burned and radiation-poisoned survivor of the Nagasaki bombing to somehow discern God saying “shape up” or “worship me” wouldn’t do him much good, since it wouldn’t begin to tell him that the only place he could be saved is on the other side of the world, much less put access to that place within his reach. It is all too easy to repeat old chestnuts like this without considering what if anything they really mean and whether there is any Scriptural basis for them.

This more recent statement addressing the December 2004 tsunami with its massive death toll, makes the claim of God “revealing himself” but at least offers some humility in the matter:

“Our human understanding is unable to understand” why God would allow such things to happen. “God is the Almighty Creator of the world. Our life–indeed that of the whole world–is in His hands. He reveals himself and calls people through both the fates of individuals and nations. Even in difficult situations we can trust in God’s care” (VOZ, 2/2005).

It seems to me that God could reveal himself in ways that involve a lot less suffering and a lot more effectiveness. And Rachel Held Evans’s disturbing question remains unanswered: “Why should I worship a God who shows mercy to me but not my neighbor? Why should we be outraged by things like the Holocaust or human trafficking when our own God is just as cruel to his creation as we are to each other?” (2010, 99-100).

Two popular attempts to explain this dilemma seem to be (1) blaming the devil for everything evil while praising God for everything good, and (2) saying that the suffering in the world arises from God’s curse upon mankind for the Fall. Ehrman addresses the “blame Satan” viewpoint when discussing the book of Job. “God himself has caused the misery, pain, agony, and loss that Job experienced. You can’t just blame the Adversary.” The only reason for Job’s loss of property, ravaging of his body, and the “savage murder” of his ten children was for God “to prove to the Satan that Job wouldn’t curse God even if he had every right to do so.” Job was innocent, and God himself acknowledges that fact. But he did it all to Job anyway,

in order to win a bet with the Satan. This is obviously a God above, beyond, and not subject to human standards. Anyone else who destroyed all your property, physically mauled you, and murdered your children–simply on a whim or a bet–would be liable to the most severe punishment that justice could mete out. But God is evidently above justice and can do whatever he pleases if he wants to prove a point. [Erhman 2008, 168]

The second attempt at an explanation is that it’s all Eve’s fault. Luther believed the earth was cursed by the Fall, and that things got even worse after Noah’s Flood (Lectures on Genesis, Ch. 3, §19). I heard this belief articulated to the point of absurdity in a sermon shortly after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan. The preacher expounded at length on the Adam and Eve story, explaining that such misery and death wouldn’t have happened if only Eve hadn’t eaten the fruit. When we got home from church, I said, “Kids, the earthquake in Japan was caused by tectonic plates rubbing up against each other, not by anybody eating the wrong thing in some garden.” The response from my preteen daughters was telling: a rolling of the eyes and, “We know that, Dad.” I had shared almost nothing with my children about the issues presented in this book, but these girls seem to know nonsense when they see it.

For those who don’t, the earth was formed as molten rock some 4.5 billion years ago, and a very thin outer skin of that rock cooled into a number of tectonic plates. Those plates have been bumping up against each other for eons, causing earthquakes long before humans were present on this planet. Now, you say they were nicely fitted together for all that time, and only came loose when Eve ate the fruit? I don’t think so. To assert that any earthquake is the result of some activity that took place only in the past few thousand (or, if you prefer the scientific consensus on human origins, several hundred thousand) years–a mere eyeblink of geologic time–is just ludicrous.2 That’s not even accounting for the fact that the whole Eden story is a myth (4.3.1).

Loftus discusses these and several other attempted explanations for the problem of evil at some length, dismantling them one by one (2008, loc. 4146-477). His conclusion about the logical options given the world we live in is unsettling but impossible to dispute: “Either God isn’t smart enough to figure out how to create a good world, or he doesn’t have the power to do it, or he just doesn’t care. You pick” (loc. 4101-102).

1 It also resulted in Bill Watterson’s choice of name for the lovable but incorrigible little brat in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin’s stuffed tiger was named after Thomas Hobbes, a philosopher having what Watterson called “a dim view of human nature.”

2 Two people who heard the sermon as well as my criticism of it protested that the preacher never said that earthquakes wouldn’t have occurred without the Fall, but only human death and suffering. So people started occupying seismically active areas only because Eve ate the fruit? Not only is that ridiculous, but it’s also unscriptural: God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26, NASB). I suppose he made that determination after he saw what a mess the guy and his wife had made of things. Anything’s possible with God, even a lack of divine foresight, right?

Let’s look at the “human misery” claim just in the light of human anatomy. Humans along with all the other predators on Earth had their carnivorous teeth and digestive systems in place merely to eat vegetation before the Fall? What about the human immune system that fights disease but often with a great deal of misery in the process? There are many features of our bodies (e.g., decaying teeth, telomeres on chromosomes) that keep things going long enough until reproduction can take place (the sine qua non of evolution) but stop working or even limit the body’s lifespan much beyond that point without modern medical intervention. It’s uncanny how amazingly suitable those “designs” wound up being for the new suffering-and-death environment once the Fall took place.